Endangered bridges. Links to the past, or barricades to the future: Will this county burn its (covered) bridges?

YOUR car rumbles along the county roads, past penned hogs, dogs dozing on porches, and chocolate-colored fields soon to be green with corn and soybeans. Somewhere in this pastoral setting stands Rush County's treasure: seven covered bridges dating back to the late 19th century. But they're hard to find amid the farmland, so you pull off the road to study the X's marked on the map. A pickup truck stops. ``Need help?'' The farmer's voice goes deep, like a stone dropping in a well. And you end up not only with directions from a farmer and spouse, but also an escort partway to the first bridge. Rush County is a friendly spot, built on potluck dinners, recipe swapping, and more than a century of hands-across-the-fields when help was needed.

But last year the community's solidarity cracked. The rift came over how and whether to preserve the six covered bridges remaining on public roads.

County residents have aligned themselves in two camps. Save them all, urge some citizens, rallying behind the slogan ``Preservation is progress'' in a fight to save yesterday's achievements for tomorrow.

Opponents - led by the Board of County Commissioners, which holds decisionmaking power - view the bridges as barricades to economic advancement. They prefer to preserve only the two best examples of the bridges, built by the Kennedy family of Indiana (see accompanying story).

Commissioner Lowell Angle, known for his hard line against the bridges, recently refused to talk about the issue after his wife arranged an interview in his home. Then, peering out his window, he summed up his attitude succinctly: ``You didn't drive down here in a horse and buggy, did you?''

The bridge battle erupted last year, when various county residents got a notice from the three county commissioners saying that Ferree Bridge, the oldest and most traveled, was doomed. Margery Anderson says this news jolted her. All her life she has lived in the white farmhouse by the bridge. And like many in the county, she viewed Ferree as a heritage symbol that shouldn't be fodder for bulldozers or dismantled and stashed in a warehouse.

The letters that knelled the Ferree's demise poured life into a preservation campaign. All around the county, farmers, mothers, and businesspeople mobilized, forming Rush County Heritage Inc. They sold T-shirts, sweat shirts, and memberships in their organization ($5 and $10) to raise funds. There hadn't been such a ballyhoo since the county's celebrity, Wendell Willkie, made his bid for the presidency in '40.

Although the bridge fight focused on the Ferree, preservationists knew that three other bridges were in jeopardy, too. So some 5,000 county residents of voting age, plus 2,500 youths, signed a petition to save the six bridges, all on county roads mostly in remote areas.

But the three county commissioners have stood fast behind the argument that timber bridges can't accommodate large trucks and heavy farm equipment. Since no state or federal funds are involved, the commissioners have carte blanche over the bridges' destinies - regardless of the fact that all six are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Expectedly, Heritage members don't buy the board's reasoning. Relatively few farmers are inconvenienced by the covered bridges, according to Larry Stout, an accountant who spearheaded the whole preservation movement and is now president of the Heritage group. ``People generally don't farm on two sides of a river, because the family farm sites pre-dated the bridges,'' he explains.

But the truck detour does inconvenience Commissioner Russell Coon, who runs a sand-and-gravel business in the sparsely populated area around Norris Bridge. He says his trucks must make a five-mile detour to bypass Norris Bridge. Does his position as commissioner constitute a conflict of interest? ``No,'' Coon says. ``I'm thinking about the other people who have to go around, too.''

Down the road, Gordon Young, who farms 260 acres, jogs three miles around Norris Bridge when he herds cattle to market about a dozen times a year. ``I grew up going around that bridge. That's part of my life. We respect those bridges,'' he says. ``But why do we want a lot of big trucks on our county roads, anyway?'' he asks. The county has its network of wider state roads, including State Highway 3, which parallels the county road where Ferree Bridge stands.

As the tug of war dragged on, commissioners engaged an engineering firm to figure costs for replacing Ferree with a concrete and steel structure. Estimate: $185,000 for a bridge with 40-ton limit, including road lead-ins. An engineer for the Heritage group estimated $80,000 to repair Ferree and bring its three-ton limit up to 15 to accommodate school buses, ambulances, and fire engines. Heritage members say the life span of concrete and steel structures is 40 to 50 years; Ferree has already lasted 114 years.

``There's an immortality to covered bridges, because they can be repaired and replaced, bit by bit,'' says Eleanor Arnold, vice-president of Heritage.

In November, citizens spoke again for preservation when they went to the polls to elect a commissioner. The solidly Republican county ousted Republican Marvin VanNatta, who had blackballed the bridges, and elected Wayman Mahan, a Democrat, who didn't promise to save all the bridges, but ran on an ``open mind'' ticket.

Does he favor saving all six? ``If there's any that can be saved, dollar-wise, we want to save them,'' Mr. Mahan says. ``I got to say I'm for them because I got a lot of votes from historic-minded people last fall.''

Commissioner Coon, however, views the bridges as outmoded and wants to salvage only two. ``What about the Ford museum [in Dearborn, Mich.]?'' he asks. ``They didn't keep every Ford that Henry ever made, did they?''

Amid all the furor, the due date for Ferree's destruction has come and gone, and the whole bridge issue stayed on ice over the winter. Each week, preservationists dutifully show up at the commissioners' Monday morning meeting, just in case the Ferree or any other bridge appears on the agenda.

The next move is anybody's guess in this game of history.

A necklace of Kennedy bridges in Indiana

ECHOES of the past often sound loudest in a covered bridge. There's something about those well-worn timbers that makes the clock tick backward with no effort at all.

In 1873, when the Kennedy family of Indiana built Ferree Bridge, the first of seven covered bridges in Rush County, the world was marking changes: The Impressionists were painting in Paris; Tolstoy had penned ``Anna Karenina''; in New York, the Brooklyn Bridge was opened. And when the Kennedys built their last bridge in Rush County, the Norris in 1916, the guns of World War I were thundering in Europe.

The seven covered bridges left standing around the county have seen their share of history, although their tomorrows are in question.

Six of the bridges span rivers and streams on county roads, while the seventh stands high and dry on private property. The flood of 1892 lifted the Mud Creek Bridge off its moorings, washing it downstream to park in a farmer's field. Today it's used as a barn and is not under the jurisdiction of Rush County.

Three generations of the Kennedy family built at least 58 covered bridges in Indiana between 1870 and 1918. Today, only 13 survive throughout the state.

Although the bridge building was started by the patriarch of the family, Archibald Kennedy, it was his son Emmett who was the kingpin in the business. When Emmett went before county commissioners to vie for a bridge contract, he would take along a scale model he'd whittled. To clinch his presentation, he placed the model between two chairs and promptly stood on it. This won him more than a few jobs.

Ornamentation is a trademark of the Kennedy bridges, with scrollwork and fancy brackets embellishing most of the arched entrances. The bridges are constructed mainly from pine shipped in from the forests of Michigan, along with some native oak. And their wooden siding is horizontal rather than the usual vertical.

``They're superbly put together,'' says Marsh Davis, rural project manager for the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. ``The quality of construction is heavier than you find in most other [covered] bridges.'' Walking inside them, you can see large Burr arch trusses, a construction that permits long spans with little midstream support.

The Moscow Bridge, which cost about $6,700 in 1886, is one of the longest two-span covered bridges in existence, measuring 346 feet. At the dedication, a daredevil on a high-wheel cycle pedaled the span and back while the Moscow band blared.

From June 26 to 28, Moscow, a dot of a village, will host its second annual covered bridge festival with flea market, crafts, and Amish-baked goodies.

The future of the six bridges seems shaky. Their status: The Ferree is slated to come down; Norris needs repair; Smith and Offutt have been closed; only Moscow and Forsythe are to be saved.

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